A viewer’s guide to the 2021 Indy 500: Five things to watch at the Brickyard on NBC
INDIANAPOLIS – An unseasonable cold front has blown into Indianapolis Motor Speedway this weekend, and it could turn the 105th Indy 500 into the hottest show at the Brickyard in years.
After complaints about a lack of passing and maneuverability in traffic, NTT IndyCar Series drivers have been raving about the racing since the 2.5-mile speedway opened for business last week.
It reached a crescendo Friday during Carb Day final practice for the Greatest Spectacle in Racing.
With temperatures in the 50s allowing for maximum grip, drivers danced all over the Brickyard for two consecutive hours at 230 mph – offering a preview of 500 miles Sunday when the thermometer is forecast to stay below 70 degrees.
“It’s going to be an extremely tight field, and with the conditions, it truly is an opportunity for any one of the 33 drivers to win this race,” pole-sitter Scott Dixon said Saturday at the prerace drivers meeting. “I think it’s going to be one of the best shows we’ve seen for Indy 500 history.”
105TH INDY 500 INFO: Start times, schedules, TV, stats, historical details about the 2021 race
STARTING LINEUP: The 33-car starting grid for the 2021 Indy 500
Aside from the cooler weather, the other critical components are some tweaks that IndyCar made to the aerodynamics this season that were intended to enhance handling on ovals.
“IndyCar did a really good job with this aero package,” 2016 Indy 500 winner Alexander Rossi told NBC Sports reporter Marty Snider during Carb Day practice. “The cooler temperatures only exaggerate that. But even in the heat, we saw a lot better practice racing than in the past. It’s going to be a hell of a show. It’s going to be a big fight to win this thing, and I can’t wait.”
Said Andretti Autosport teammate James Hinchcliffe: “For anyone watching practices, the (final hour) has been like Carb Day every day of the week. The amount of legitimate uncontested passes are very good. The added downforce was a huge step in the right direction. It not only closed the train up but has made passing a lot more feasible. Especially if track conditions are what we think on Sunday, that itself would have been a massive improvement over the last two years.
“The combination of it all is going to be a really exciting race and a little less track position dependent. It’s always great to be up front, but if you find yourself after 50 laps mired in the midfield, I don’t think your day is done by any stretch.”
Rossi responded, “All of them” when asked for the list of contenders Sunday.
That harkens back to the recent golden era of Indy 500 action. From 2012-16 – the first five seasons of the DW12 chassis and the original iteration of aero kits, there were a dizzying 45 lead changes per race (including a track-record 68 in 2013 and 54 in 2016). In the four races since, the lead change average has dropped to 29 with 22 last season being a 10-year low.
The most memorable Indy 500 finish of the past four years was the 2019 battle between Rossi and winner Simon Pagenaud, who traded the lead several times over the last 15 laps while snaking back and forth across the straightaways to disrupt the air for the trailing car.
Friday’s practice was full of similar backstretch weaving, and Colton Herta told NBC Sports’ Kevin Lee that “trying to find a way to break the draft to keep a guy in second” will be a key to victory in the final 50 laps Sunday – requiring a mix of bravery and brainpower to both navigate the lead and get to the point.
“It’s definitely going to be a very mentally tough race,” Dixon said. “You’re going to be pretty drained after this one.”
Though he masterfully kept Rossi at bay two years ago, Pagenaud believes that’ll be nearly impossible for the leader this year and also said it’s “very possible” for a car to move from third to first on the final lap
“The car in first position on the last lap won’t be able to hold the lead,” said Pagenaud, who will be starting 26th among several Chevrolet who had mediocre qualifying results but are expected to be decent in race setup. “The suction is very strong for second place, and third place is quite effective. Lot of thinking about how you attack the last 50 laps. We have to crack the top 10 in the first 100 laps and find our way forward from then.
“As you progress through the field, there are stronger cars, and it becomes more difficult.”
Said 2018 Indy 500 winner Will Power: “You want to be in one of the top two spots near the end. The front two are going to switch back and forth, back and forth.”
Here are four other things to watch in the Indy 500 with coverage beginning at 11 a.m. ET on NBC:
Can Dixon get it done? With six championships and 51 victories, Dixon’s reputation as an IndyCar legend already is secure. But if there’s one niggling void on his resume, it’s the Brickyard.
Though he won the Indy 500 from the pole position in 2008, he also has three seconds in 18 starts at IMS (including leading 111 of 200 laps last year before losing control to Takuma Sato). He had led 13 Indy 500s and ranks third all time in laps led on the 2.5-mile oval (he can pass Al Unser and Ralph De Palma for the record by leading 82 laps Sunday).
Dixon also has been virtually untouchable in his No. 9 Dallara-Honda since the middle of May, turning the last fastest lap in five practice or qualifying sessions over the past 10 days (aside from the pole position, he also posted the fastest speed in Saturday’s qualifying opener and topped practice last Wednesday and Friday.
“It’s good, but it doesn’t really matter,” Dixon said Saturday. “Tomorrow is what matters for all of us.”
It raises an age-old question about whether winning the Indy 500 requires a different skillset than winning a title and whether either is a better evaluation of talent.
Josef Newgarden is the only driver in Sunday’s field with multiple championships other than Dixon, but he doesn’t have an Indy 500 victory yet.
“There’s guys who are fast and have elements of the package but don’t have everything,” Newgarden said. “A guy like Scott has everything. So that’s the difference between someone really good and flashy and entertaining and wins a race but never a championship. I maybe didn’t have the full package when I started but worked really hard at what are all the ingredients it takes to be reliable and well rounded.
“No disrespect to someone like Sato, but he is a winner (with the motto): ‘No attack, no chance.’ That guy can go and win a race. But when you look at the 500 and what it requires vs. the championship and what it requires, they are different. They’re very different. There’s an argument of what you would prefer that’s a different question.”
The Kiddie Corps: Starting to Dixon’s right on the front row will be a reminder of the narrative through five races of the IndyCar season.
Colton Herta (starting second) and Rinus VeeKay (third) are two of the series’ four winners under 24 in 2021 in a changing of the guard that had been predicted but still seems revolutionary and surreal to be occurring so quickly.
Herta, 21, lost the pole to Dixon by a scant 6 feet over 10 miles and has a No. 26 Dallara-Honda that consistently has been strong for Andretti Autosport (which recently signed Herta to a two-year contract extension after he won the Grand Prix of St. Petersburg). The American’s strategy is called by his father, Bryan, a former IndyCar winner who masterminded the tactics behind two Indy 500 winners (including Dan Wheldon in 2011).
VeeKay, 20, confidently has been talking about sweeping the month (after scoring his first IndyCar victory in the GMR GP) and what type of milk he wants in Victory Circle while also posing with the Borg-Warner Trophy.
The Dutchman isn’t cocky, though, and his poise and self-assurance comes off as likable rather than arrogant. During Media Day, he described the good omens and “little signs in my normal life that have been really weird this month” (a butterfly recently landed on his shoulder).
“It’s weird to be able to say it, but I think we have a very fair chance of being able to win the race,” he said. “We have a great race car. I don’t want to be overconfident, but I think we can go for the win and make sure I stay out of trouble and show some fire in the last laps.
“I don’t want to jinx anything, of course. I’m just very excited. I think we really have a car to do it. I think we can really go for it and put up a nice performance.”
Other 20somethings to watch: Alex Palou, who won the season opener at Barber Motorsports Park, will start sixth and seems to have shaken off his qualifying crash; Pato O’Ward has been quiet since his breakthrough victory at Texas Motor Speedway but was last year’s Indy 500 rookie of the year; Scott McLaughlin qualified the best of the Team Penske cars and proved with a second to Dixon at Texas that he already is up to speed on ovals.
Penske power in traffic: With a record 18 Indy 500 victories, Penske always is considered a contender even when the team’s best starter is 17th (McLaughlin) and another (Power) nearly missed the field.
Though qualifying was a major struggle at Penske for the second consecutive year, the Fast Nine results of VeeKay and Ed Carpenter indicate it’s unrelated to Chevy horsepower.
It apparently is just a byproduct of choosing to focus more on race setup as both Newgarden (starting 21st) and Pagenaud (26th) seem unworried about how well their cars will race.
Last year, Newgarden finished fifth after starting 13th, and the two-time champion knows how to work traffic.
“Relative to where we’re at (in 2020), it’s probably similar,” he said. “We were consistent throughout the race and found ourselves in the mix at the end. Ultimately we weren’t in the mix in that last 30 laps, but we put ourselves in position to be in the mix. I remember the final pit stop, I came out right behind Sato.
“We just have to be there in that last stint. We’ve got to do the same thing. Give yourself an opportunity to be in position to win it. So that’s what our focus will be is getting in position for that.”
Anger is a gift: Cantankerous emotions have been bubbling below the surface of the 33-car field across social media, and that friction could erupt over the course of 500 miles.
The most high-profile example was Conor Daly branding Santino Ferrucci as “a complete psychopath” in practice Friday, and the animosity spilled over to Instagram hours later.
Aside from that rivalry, there also has been some feuding this month between Herta and the Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing cars (for an ill-advised photo stunt), and some close calls in practice between various drivers.
All of it bears watching entering a race in which drivers might feel comfortable enough to take risks they ordinarily wouldn’t.